How Do You Determine Your Max Heart Rate? Target Heart Rate? Here’s How…



You’ve made the commitment to incorporate exercise as part of your lifestyle. Perhaps you’ve begun running again, taken up cycling or swimming or maybe you’ve just started a new aerobics class. It’s no secret that exercise is essential for the sake of health and longevity. If you’re exercising, you’re on the right track. But, how do you know if your exercise of choice is getting you closer to your goal?

Obviously, if your clothes fit different or you can see the physical changes taking place, you’re making headway. However, those changes are not instant. In order to immediately tell if you’re working at a level that is going to benefit you, determining your Max Heart Rate (MHR) and Target Heart Rate (THR) is essential.

Maximum Heart Rate, or MHR, is simply the highest heart rate your heart can achieve. It will serve as the best

index around which to center your Heart Zone Training Programs and it will serve as a marker for exercise intensity. MHR is calculated during periods of maximum levels of exertion, hence the term Maximum Heart Rate.

Before embarking on any training program that hinges off of your MHR, there are some important things to know.

The Max Heart Rate:

-Does not always reflect your level of fitness
-Is sensitive to certain medications and altitudes
-Is usually higher in women
-Has great variability among people of the same age and gender
-Is genetically determined
-Cannot be predicted by a mathematical formula at 100% accuracy
-Cannot be increased through training

As a point of reference, most healthy males have a Resting Heart Rate, or RHR, of about 70 BPM (beats per minute) and females, about 75 BPM. You can check your own RHR while watching television or relaxing. Much debate has ensued over how to determine the MHR but the formula that has been universally adopted is:

220-Age In Years=MHR

The number 220 is based on the assumption of the average max heart rate for a baby and that number decreases by one beat every year. For example, if you’re 38 years old, your MHR would be 220-38=182. In that case, the maximum number of times your heart will beat is 182 BPM. This formula is based on theory only which means there are cases when the calculation will not work. It is not uncommon for athletes or other individuals that are fit to exceed their calculated MHR. Conversely, individuals that are not in shape often fall short of their predetermined MHR. This calculation is the most effective way to determine your MHR and it is also the one recommended by the American Heart Association. Just as you don’t want to consistently drive a car at the speed for which it is registered, you don’t want to exert your heart for any length of time at the highest level possible. Therefore, you need to find your age-appropriate Target Heart Rate (THR) or Training Heart Rate. Once you have determined your Max Heart Rate, you are ready to find your THR, which is the zone in which you will reap the most benefits while exercising. Typically, if you exercise at 50-80% of your MHR, you will get the greatest benefit while also keeping your risks at a minimum.

If you are a 42 year old male, for example, your MHR is 178 BPM (220-42=178). Since you don’t want to exercise at a level that will cause your heart to beat at 178 BPM for any length of time, it is important to understand your Target Heart Rate. This is not a certain, single number but rather a range of numbers that are categorized with particular goals in mind. For the man in this example, 89-142 BPM is optimal. That is a range of 50-80% of the Max Heart Rate. If the MHR is 178, it is multiplied by .50 and then again by .80 to get the correct range. It’s that simple.

The five Heart Rate Training Zones are:


This is great for beginners, those who are in very poor shape or those who are primarily interested in weight loss. It’s the lowest level at which you can exercise and still increase you level of fitness. It is also a great recovery zone for those who’ve over trained and need to take a break.

Here and from this point forward, your body really starts to reap the benefits of aerobic exercise. Body fat is the primary source of energy in this zone and that’s why it is referred to as the weight management zone.

ZONE #3-AEROBIC: 70-80% of MHR
In this zone, your endurance increases and you gain aerobic power. For cardiovascular fitness, this is the most effective zone and, after a while, you’ll be able to do more (running, for example) in less time. Additionally, this zone is effective for increasing overall muscle strength.

High performance training benefits are found here. Your body becomes more adept and training harder for longer periods of time before experiencing the pain caused by the accumulation of lactic acid and oxygen deprivation. Your Anaerobic Threshold, or AT, is the point at which your body can no longer effectively remove lactic acid quickly enough from the muscles being worked. Most competitive athletes compete at or about their Anaerobic Threshold.

Unless you are a seasoned and fit athlete, you should not be training at this level. If you are fit, you shouldn’t be training at this level for very long. Lactic acid begins to build up in the muscles at a very fast pace in this training zone. The primary benefit of training in this zone is that you can increase the capabilities of your fast twitch muscles, thereby increasing your speed. This is a great way for runners to interval train.

Cardiovascular exercise is a critical part of any diet and exercise program and knowing your Training Heart Rate Zone will give you advantage of knowing the what level of intensity at which you’re training and at what levels of intensity you will need to train in order to reach certain goals. It is important to remember that the THR is not one specific number but a range of numbers that indicate your level of exertion. Knowing what those ranges are is a vital element to the success of your regimen. Just because you spend an hour on a treadmill, elliptical machine or stationary bike, you won’t necessarily make any progress. If you’re not training at the level necessary, you may be wasting your time and energy.

The best way to monitor your THR is to stop periodically during your exercise program and take your own pulse. This may seem time consuming or counter-productive, but aside from wearing a heart monitor, it is the most rational and reasonable means through which to get the measurements you’ll need. The best place to take your own pulse is on the carotid artery which can be found just below the place where your neck and jawbone meet. The most accurate reading comes from a full 60 second reading but you may prefer to take a 15 second reading and multiply by 4 for the full one minute measurement.

No matter what exercise program you begin, make sure you contact your physician first. If you’ve gotten medical clearance, the next step is to determine your own personal goal and calculate your Max Heart Rate. From there, you will be able to gauge how hard you are working or will need to work to get to where you want to go.

Additional Resources

Target Heart Rate Information from the American Heart Association

Your Target Heart Rate – The Walking Site

Very Cool Interactive Target Heart Rate Calculator from The Mayo Clinic

General Heart Rate Information at Wikipedia

Good Information about the different Heart Rate Training Zones

Great explanation of Max Heart Rate along with a Calculator


  1. Thanks Josh I appreciate that. Yeah yeah, I’ve heard all the jokes about burning calories from opening beer bottles etc 🙄 😆


  2. Thanks! I have been looking for Target Heart Rate Scales for the very fit. I am 55 and very athletic. Your scale helped me put reasonable and inteligent parameters on my target zones.